So, you’re wondering if your child needs a therapist and are asking yourself, “Is this (fill in the blank) normal?” I completely understand. There are a lot of worries surrounding parenting and wanting the best for your child. I want to start by saying, parents, you are the expert of your child, no one knows them better than you. Often times, parents will come into my office saying that they can sense that there is something going on with their child but they just aren’t sure if it’s normal or if it’s something they should be concerned about. I will acknowledge that sometimes it is hard to say because there can be a fine line between normal and “let’s get some help with this.” Let’s briefly talk about the definition of a “normal” child and some signs your child may need counseling from a professional therapist.
So, what’s normal?
There’s no perfect child or parent and there is some normalcy in having fluctuations in mood and behavior that are part of normal child development. Children do break the rules sometimes. I know how frustrating it can be to have your child not follow directions but testing limits is how they learn who they are and how the world works. This also creates the opportunity for you to teach them valuable lessons while they are still within your safety net and can receive your guidance and support. Sometimes, however, persistent behavior problems can be a sign of something more serious. Another thing that can be normal is changes in appetite and sleep. Have they been on a school break recently? Are they off their routine? Sometimes changes in routine can affect things like sleep and appetite. However, these changes should be monitored and if they persist beyond a couple of weeks it could be an indication that something is up.
Here are some common experiences that may trigger signs your child may need counseling with a professional therapist:
- Life Transitions – Sometimes change is inevitable and not all change is bad. However, sometimes kids struggle when they experience too many life changes all at once. What could be a small change for you could be having a more difficult impact on your child. Did you and your child recently move? Or did they have a change in school? It can be normal to see a brief change in your child’s behavior when they are going through life transitions. As adults, even for us we need time to adjust and get our bearings after a recent move or change in job. However, if changes in sleep, appetite or mood persist for more than a couple of weeks it could be an indication they are having difficulty handling things.
- Household chaos – Every family has some sort of dysfunction. Parents are people too and sometimes may have disagreements with one another, other adults, or even their children. These disagreements don’t always have a negative effect on children, but they can. Problems arise when children witness highly emotional arguments between parents, or between parents and other individuals, physical violence (pushing, hitting, shoving, etc.), someone important to them leaves the household.
- Separation from parent – Separations from your child can occur for many reasons (divorce, changes in custody, parents traveling for work), some reasons aren’t controllable, it doesn’t always mean it’s going negatively impact your child. There may be times in which you are not always able to be with your child. As children get older and are gaining autonomy, this is quite normal and appropriate. However, until they reach middle school children are heavily reliant on parents to meet their emotional, physical, and basic needs. I believe what is important is that children are able to maintain healthy access to parents as much as possible. It’s important to keep a close watch on how your child is handling separations from you. Problems can easily arise if a child feels their ‘safe place’ is being threatened.
- Death of a family member or friend – Loss is a normal part of life, and grief is not pathology. Children are able to process the death of a loved one effectively if it’s talked about and handled appropriately. Problems arise when they don’t understand what they’re feelings, have been given untruthful information or they feel its unsafe to share their feelings. Regardless, it can always be helpful to have assistance from a counselor to foster a healthy grieving process.
- A frightening life event – When most people think of traumatic experiences, they immediately think of things such as abuse (physical, emotional, sexual) or neglect. In these instances, counseling is always recommended regardless the presence of symptoms.
But what if it’s not abuse or neglect? Can other things be traumatic for children? The quick answer is yes. Again, it’s important to hold in mind the perspective of a child. Something could be scary to your child that isn’t scary to you: a traumatic doctor visit, a car accident (even minor), sickness of a parent, experiencing a major natural disaster, experience with death like attending a funeral, to name a few. Young children are highly susceptible to the ‘emotion in the room’. Were other people stressed, upset or crying? If so, this could have been a traumatic experience for a young child who doesn’t understand or isn’t able to express the event’s impact.
- Bullying – Parents, you are unable to protect their children from everything and unfortunately, most people will have experienced some form of bullying within their life. Most of us are able to overcome this experience with support. It’s important to engage in regular check-ins about peer relationships to create the opportunity for healthy conversation with your child. This also creates the opportunity for your child to gain skills from you on how to handle stressful situations. However, sometimes, bullying is persistent. Persistent experiencing of threats to physical safety or criticism can lead to feelings of low self-esteem or worthlessness. In these cases, if can be helpful to have support from a counselor to work on healthy ways to problem solve and cope.
If your child has experienced one or more of the above it doesn’t necessarily mean they will need additional support. However, it is always a good idea to monitor your child when they are going through these experiences so you can identify warning signs your child may need counseling. Some of these signals can be:
- Difficulty managing emotional outbursts
- Behavior that does not respond to discipline
- Persistent difficulty falling or staying asleep
- Persistent increase or decrease in appetite
- Behavior that interferes with school
- Behavior that interferes with social interactions
- Self-injury or talk about suicide
How can a therapist help?
Therapy can look different depending on the age of the client. With young children its often a misconception they cannot benefit from therapy because they aren’t able to understand or articulate their feelings. Research search tells us that children are able to express themselves through ways other than verbal expression. A common way is through play or other expressive activities like drawing. Children communicate their perception of the world through play and its therapeutic for them to share their feelings in this manner. It is necessary for parents to participate in therapeutic process. This creates opportunity for therapists or parents to assist the child in labeling his or her own feelings and experiences. Incorporating emotional identification and healthy coping strategies can be extremely effective in supporting children who have had stressful experiences. Being understood and having support increases the efficacy for behavior changes and overall positive functioning. As children get older, therapists are able to incorporate more verbal processing and problem solving. However, regardless the age a therapist can be an integral part of aiding in healthy development and overcoming difficult experiences.
Armed with a little more knowledge, the signs that your child may need counseling might be a little more evident. Ready to schedule an appointment? Contact Brentwood Counseling Associates and connect with one of our experienced therapists.